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CT approves early voting ballot question, paving path to new law

This article was originally published in CT Mirror.

Connecticut residents on Tuesday voted in favor of bringing in-person early voting to the state, marking a historic victory for proponents in a years-long struggle for expanded ballot access and setting the stage for lawmakers to modernize an election system lagging behind much of the country.

The ballot referendum passed 59% to 41%, according to unofficial results from the secretary of the state’s office, allowing for an amendment to the state constitution, which currently limits in-person voting to Election Day. More than 45 million Americans had already voted early ahead of Tuesday, according to the U.S. Elections Project — with in-person early voting making up more than 20 million of the ballots cast.

But Connecticut residents could only vote by mail, a measure that was expanded during the COVID-19 pandemic, or wait in lines on Election Day. The state is expected to soon join 46 others that permit early voting, which also played a significant role in 2018’s historic midterm turnout. The legislature will convene in January, giving lawmakers their first opportunity to set the framework for what early voting could look like.

Patricia Rossi, the Connecticut League of Women Voters’ vice president for Advocacy and Public Affairs, said Wednesday that the question’s success was seemingly a matter of educating voters on what early voting entailed.

“In the face of our seeing restrictions to the ballot being implemented in other states, I think it’s really a particularly great thing to celebrate in Connecticut, that we’re doing this,” Rossi said. “I think what we’re saying is we want everybody to participate in our democracy. We want every eligible voter to be able to vote.”

The first attempt at bringing in-person early voting to Connecticut failed by more than 38,000 votes during the 2014 midterm election. At the time, it was grouped with no-excuse absentee voting, a different convenience practice that allows for any voter to request and cast an absentee/mail ballot without an excuse. Political experts attributed the referendum’s failure, in part, to widespread confusion about the question.

Voting advocates spent the next several years pushing for its revival. During the 2021 legislature, it once again made its way through the House and Senate — as is required for constitutional amendments — and prompted a much simpler question for voters to decide: “Shall the Constitution of the State be amended to permit the General Assembly to provide for early voting?”

Tyisha Walker-Myers, president of the New Haven Board of Alders, stood in chilly temperatures outside of the Barnard Magnet School in New Haven on Tuesday, pointing voters to the polling station entrance and giving them pamphlets with early voting information. Walker-Myers said she typically arrives at the polls around 6 a.m. to make sure she’s one of the first people to vote. This year, she was “pretty sure” that the majority of people would support early voting.

“There are certain barriers that keep people from voting. We’re gonna knock down those barriers,” Walker-Myers said. “It’s really disheartening that we’re one of the four states without early voting.”

At New Haven City Hall, Ariel Santikarma, a 23-year-old doctoral student at Yale, also voted in favor of the early voting referendum. Tuesday marked the Virginian’s first time voting in Connecticut. She said expanding access to the ballot box would help people who can’t always make it to the polls on election day. 

“I think anything that expands accessibility is a good thing,” Santikarma said. “Especially in a world where we don’t have Election Day off.” 

The more than 530,000 ballots cast in favor of early voting comes as Republican officials and constituents have waged a campaign against expanded access, calling the practice an “unfunded mandate” that would place a strain on election workers and challenge the integrity of the state’s election system. But voter fraud is rare and doesn’t happen frequently enough to influence the outcome of elections.

The opposition to more voting access echoes sentiments shared among prominent members of the GOP, many of whom have cast doubts on U.S. elections since the defeat of former President Donald Trump in 2020. On Tuesday, a New Britain resident filed a complaint in court against the ballot question, arguing that she’s in “danger of losing her substantial rights, power and privilege over ballot security and election integrity.” The plaintiff wants the question declared “legally null and void in its entirety.” A court proceeding is scheduled for Nov. 16. 

Last month, a poll by the ACLU of Connecticut Rise Political Action Committee revealed that 71% of voters of color overwhelmingly supported in-person early voting. Black and Latino voters also told The Connecticut Mirror that early voting would help them. People of color nationally experience longer wait times than white voters.

Sam Goode, a Connecticut Central State University sophomore, said more on-campus residents would vote if they were able to do so in-person the weekend before Election Day. Goode suggested that not all residents are able to make it home on the day of an election to vote at their local polls. 

Candace Garthwaite, a registered Democrat and 30-year resident of Greenwich, said she felt strongly about supporting this year’s early voting measure. 

“It’s time for Connecticut to get on board with making sure that we have more access to voting,” Garthwaite said as she left her polling station at Old Greenwich School Tuesday afternoon. “We’ve been more limited, and it’s time to change that.”

Some voters on Election Day said they didn’t get a chance to cast their support or opposition to the referendum because they didn’t see the question.

Mary Sherrod, 89, has voted in every election since she was 21, many times at the Atwater Senior Center in the Fair Haven neighborhood of New Haven. She knew the candidates she wanted to vote for and said she was just glad Trump wasn’t on the ballot. But the avid voter didn’t respond to the early voting question. She went down the line of candidates and turned in her ballot, not noticing the additional question to the right.

“I really wasn’t looking for early voting,” Sherrod said Tuesday. “I knew who I was voting for, so I just did that.”

Meanwhile, voters like Charlotte, a 67-year-old woman strolling through downtown New Haven, voted against it — citing worries unrelated to election integrity. Charlotte, who asked to be identified by her first name only, used a car service to get to the polls earlier in the day. 

She was most concerned about the state’s cost of living and broken promises by politicians. She thinks people having more time to vote might make life more difficult.

“I wasn’t too happy with that,” she said about the early voting question, adding that some people vote just to vote. “A lot of people voting don’t even know what they’re voting for. You’re going to make the economy even worse.”